Posts Tagged Walter Benjamin
We’ve all observed Godwin’s law in action. “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1″—that is, if an online discussion (regardless of topic or scope) goes on long enough, sooner or later someone will compare someone or something to Hitler.
We’ve all cringed at the crass hyperbole of comparing some minor injustice – or even some pretty significant injustice – to the Holocaust. We’ve all sighed at the historical ignorance of many of those who make the comparisons, wondering what on earth they do teach them in schools these days.
And of course it’s right that we should check ourselves, as those comparisons spring to mind, to ensure that if we do invoke Hitler, Nazism, the Holocaust, the Warsaw Uprising or whatever it is, we do so mindful of the history, the scale, the world-altering significance and the uniqueness of those events.
But when we hear political rhetoric and recognise its echoes (whether the words are being used consciously or not), when we see tabloid headlines and recognise the way in which they are stoking and inciting hostility and prejudice, when proposals are made (firms having to gather data on ‘foreign’ workers, schools to gather data on the children they teach, registers of Muslims, etc) that remind us of the way in which the ground was prepared for fascism and genocide, of course we have to point this out.
This is not the same as accusing Theresa May, Amber Rudd or Donald Trump of being Nazis, or of harbouring plans for concentration camps. But as we have to keep on pointing out, fascism doesn’t start with that.
It will restore your honour,make you feel proud,protect your house,give you a job,clean up the neighbourhood,remind you of how great you once were,clear out the venal and the corrupt,remove anything you feel is unlike you…It doesn’t walk in saying,“Our programme means militias, mass imprisonments, transportations, war and persecution.”(Michael Rosen)
And it arrives with the drip drip drip of the message about ‘the other’, the other who has the job that should be yours, the place in the housing queue, the easy access to benefits and to everything that you feel you have to struggle for. The other who is not only (somehow) both a scrounger and has nicked your job, but is a terrorist sympathiser, a rapist or a drug dealer. Or, conversely, is covertly running the whole show, the media, the financial institutions and so forth.
You’ve got to be taughtTo hate and fear,You’ve got to be taughtFrom year to year,It’s got to be drummedIn your dear little earYou’ve got to be carefully taught.(South Pacific, ‘You’ve got to be Taught’, Oscar Hammerstein II, 1949)
Hatred isn’t something you’re born with. It gets taught. At school, they said segregation what’s said in the Bible… Genesis 9, Verse 27. At 7 years of age, you get told it enough times, you believe it. You believe the hatred. You live it… you breathe it. You marry it.(Mrs Pell, in Mississippi Burning, dir. Alan Parker, 1988)
We’ve grown used, sadly, to the vilification of migrants and Muslims, the self-evidently false narratives that are promoted on page 1 and whose repudiation (if it comes) is hidden in small type at the bottom of page 2. What’s more recent is the vilification of ‘experts‘ (to use the full designation, ‘so-called experts’). The self-appointed champions of the people, the defenders of the ordinary man or woman on the street, rail against the ‘loaded foreign elite’, ‘out of touch judges’, academics who have no idea of life in the ‘real world’. In reality, of course, these newspapers are owned by members of that very ‘loaded foreign elite’, and are probably rather less in touch with the real world inhabited by most of us as the most rarefied academic or judge.
More alarming still is the growing use of the term ‘enemies of the people’, and the accusations of treachery. The former is a phrase we know from history – the history of Robespierre, Stalin and Pol Pot, under whose leadership it tended to mean at best exile and at worst death. Charges of treachery have also traditionally carried death sentences and as such those accusations feel like incitements to violence – such as the murderous violence meted out to Jo Cox by a far right extremist who gave his name in court when first charged as ‘Death to traitors, freedom for Britain’. This horrifying act, along with the spectacle across the Atlantic of Nazi-style salutes at far right rallies in support of the President-elect, and Ku Klux Klan endorsements of his proposed chief strategist, are warning signs – these views never went away, not altogether, but where they might have hidden in the shadows they are now in the light, unapologetic, emboldened.
What we do and what we say now is vitally important. We cannot let these views become normalised, we cannot just ‘see how it goes’, or assure ourselves and each other that these people don’t really mean it, they won’t go that far, they will settle down, or even that there are sufficient checks and balances in the system to ensure that they cannot carry out the worst that they promise.
In the 1930s there was the real chance of stopping Hitler. Had we known then what we know now, there might have been not only the opportunity but the will. We do know now. We know where that road leads, and we know that there are many points along that road where the progress towards war and genocide can be stopped, but that last time we left it too late. Last time we let it happen. That is, ironically, our best hope now. That there are so many people living who saw the worst happen, who remember what that evil looks, sounds and smells like, and who won’t be so readily reassured that it’s all ok. And those of us who didn’t live through it but who have read and learned and understood enough will be with them.
In 1940 the Jewish writer Walter Benjamin took his own life in the coastal town of Portbou in Catalonia, believing that his chance of obtaining a visa to the USA had gone, and that he faced arrest by the Gestapo. He was mistaken – others in his party received visas the following day and made their way to safety. Who can say what he might have contributed had he been able to hold despair at bay for just a little longer? But this famous passage indicates something of how he saw the world at that time:
A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
(Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, and Clarence, the Angel of Alternate History)
Rebecca Solnit suggests a different way of seeing things, inspired by It’s a Wonderful Life.
Director Frank Capra’s move is a model for radical history because Clarence shows the hero what the world would look like if he hadn’t been there, the only sure way to measure the effect of our acts, the one we never get. The angel Clarence’s face is turned toward the futures that never come to pass. …the Angel of Alternate History tells us that our acts count, that we are making history all the time, because of what doesn’t happen as well as what does. Only that angel can see the atrocities not unfolding…. The Angel of History says ‘Terrible’, but this angel says, ‘Could be worse’. They’re both right, but the latter angel gives us grounds to act.
However things turn out, we may never know what difference we made, or might have made. If the threats that we perceive at present come to nothing it will be easy for us and others to say, see, we were over-reacting. If not it will be easy for us and others to say that our words and actions failed to achieve what we hoped. We could just as well say in the first instance that we helped in our small ways, collectively and individually, to defuse that threat, and in the second that things could have been worse.
Because we won’t have Clarence to show us the effect of our acts, all we can do is to do the best we can, to do the right thing, to call out evil when we see it, to draw the historical parallels with rigour and discernment, to speak truth in the face of lies and love in the face of hatred, to stand up for and stand with the people who are threatened by those lies and that hatred.
And in that spirit we think not of the man today imprisoned for life for a vicious murder motivated by hatred, but of the woman he killed, the woman whose life made a difference and will continue to make a difference, who reminded us that we have more in common than that which divides us, and whose family today have spoken out to assert the values that drove her:
We are not here to plead for retribution. We have no interest in the perpetrator. We feel nothing but pity for him, that his life was so devoid of love that his only way of finding meaning was to attack a defenceless woman who represented the best of our country in an act of supreme cowardice. Cowardice that has continued throughout this trial.
When Jo became an MP she committed to using her time well. She decided early on that she would work as if she only had a limited time, and would always do what she thought was right even if it made her unpopular. So she walked her own path, criticised her own party when she felt it was wrong and was willing to work with the other side when they shared a common cause. The causes she took on ranged from Syria to autism, protecting civilians in wars to tackling the loneliness of older people in her constituency.
Jo was a warm, open and supremely empathetic woman. She was powerful, not because of the position she held, but because of the intensity of her passion and her commitment to her values come what may.
The killing of Jo was in my view a political act, an act of terrorism, but in the history of such acts it was perhaps the most incompetent and self-defeating. An act driven by hatred which instead has created an outpouring of love. An act designed to drive communities apart which has instead pulled them together. An act designed to silence a voice which instead has allowed millions of others to hear it.
Jo is no longer with us, but her love, her example and her values live on. For the rest of our lives we will not lament how unlucky we were to have her taken from us, but how unbelievably lucky we were to have her in our lives for so long.
(adapted from a paper given at ‘There & Back Again’, a postgraduate conference at the University of Nottingham, organised by the Landscape, Space, Place Research Group. The title is taken from Iain Hacking’s fascinating study of the fugueur phenomenon)
The idea of wandering, of travelling without constraints, without a humdrum practical purpose, is perennially appealing to most of us, even if, for most of us, the drawbacks come to mind pretty speedily if we start to entertain the notion. Some do it anyway – seize the moment when the obstacles are not insuperable – but generally it’s something to enjoy vicariously, or to indulge in short bursts, taking time out of a holiday schedule to just have a stroll around foreign streets.
Throughout myth and literature there are many wanderers who cross seas, continents and centuries. For some it’s a pastime, a means of avoiding commitments or encumbrance:
I’m the type of guy that likes to roam around
I’m never in one place, I roam from town to town
And when I find myself fallin’ for some girl
I hop right into that car of mine and ride around the world (Dion, The Wanderer, 1961)
Everyday in the week I’m in a different city
If I stay too long people try to pull me down
Hendrix suggests that the prejudices of the cities in which he finds himself push him to leave, as well as, like Dion, that if he does sometimes feel his heart ‘kinda gettin’ hot’ for some woman, he moves on before he gets caught. For some, wandering is a subversive practice (not using the city streets in the prescribed way), for others it’s a compulsion, even a curse.
The flâneur is one of those archetypal wanderers. This classic definition is by Baudelaire, writing in 1863 in his ‘Le Peintre de la vie moderne’.
The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world—impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito. The lover of life makes the whole world his family, just like the lover of the fair sex who builds up his family from all the beautiful women that he has ever found, or that are or are not—to be found; or the lover of pictures who lives in a magical society of dreams painted on canvas. Thus the lover of universal life enters into the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy. Or we might liken him to a mirror as vast as the crowd itself; or to a kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness, responding to each one of its movements and reproducing the multiplicity of life and the flickering grace of all the elements of life.
He is a perfect stroller, a passionate spectator, an erudite wanderer. He walks the streets, probably alone, with no map or itinerary, with the confidence that comes from being male, well-educated and wealthy. His milieu is the city, and quintessentially Paris. One might think that the boulevards and arcades of Haussmann’s Paris lent themselves to strolling so much better than the labyrinthine streets of the old city, but it was that old city that defined the flâneur, allowing (in Edmund White’s words) ‘a passive surrender to the aleatory flux of the innumerable and surprising streets’.
The flâneur is a prototype detective, his apparent indolence masking intense watchfulness. This recalls Edgar Allen Poe’s story, ‘The Man of the Crowd’ (which was translated by Baudelaire), in which a man recovering from illness sits in a London coffee shop, watching the passers-by, and engaging in Holmesian deductions about their occupation and character. His attention is drawn by an old man who he is unable to read, and he feels compelled by insatiable curiosity to follow him, for a night and a day, as the man moves unceasingly through the city: he is the man of the crowd – not only hiding within it, but unable to exist outside it.
Walter Benjamin in his 1935 study of Baudelaire suggests that Baudelaire identifies the old man as a flâneur. This must be a misreading on Benjamin’s part, since the old man is as manic as the flâneur is composed. The flâneur may ‘set up house’ in the heart of the crowd, becoming part of ‘the ebb and flow of movement’, but he remains separate, above the mass. He is, like Baudelaire and Benjamin, at the same time engaged with and alienated by the city.
Poe’s story does give us a flâneur, however, in the person of the narrator, who can and does choose to abandon his pursuit, stepping aside to resume his life, and a different kind of wanderer, in the person of the man of the crowd. Steven Fink argues persuasively that the man of the crowd is the mythological figure of the Wandering Jew, condemned to wander endlessly as punishment for a terrible crime. (He has a number of counterparts, including, amongst others, Cain, the Flying Dutchman, and the Ancient Mariner.) Certainly this description by Benjamin’s contemporary, Siegfried Krakauer, is remarkably close to Poe’s description of the old man:
‘there arose confusedly and paradoxically within my mind, the ideas of vast mental power, of caution, of penuriousness, of avarice, of coolness, of malice, of bloodthirstiness, of triumph, of merriment, of excessive terror, of intense – of supreme despair … How wild a history … is written within that bosom!’. (Edgar Allen Poe, ‘The Man of the Crowd’)
Imagine [his face] to be many faces, each reflecting one of the periods which he traversed and all of them combining into ever new patterns as he restlessly and vainly tries on his wanderings to reconstruct out of the times that shaped him the one time he is doomed to incarnate. It is a terrible face, ‘assembled from the many faces of the dead’. (Siegfried Krakauer – History, the Last Things Before the Last (OUP, 1969))
If the man of the crowd is no flâneur, he does bear a stronger resemblance to the fugueur, a lesser-known (and shorter-lived) phenomenon which emerged in the 1880s. Bordeaux medical student Philippe Tissié and neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot at the Salpêtrière hospital in Paris documented a number of cases of men undertaking strange and unexpected trips, in states of obscured consciousness. They were subject to hallucinations, and often dominated by ideas of persecution. Their conduct during the episode appeared normal, but they were unconscious of what they were doing, and had no memory of it afterwards – in a state of dissociative fugue. A fugue state is defined as involving selective memory loss, the inability to recall specific – perhaps traumatic – events. This may be accompanied by wandering and travelling, in an attempt to recover memory/identity, or perhaps in a flight from it – the etymological paradox of flight/pursuit.
The fugueur is quite distinct from the flâneur whose journeying is deliberately aimless and random, an end in itself. His itinerary may defy linear logic but nonetheless is purposeful, even if that purpose can be discovered only retrospectively. The flâneur, in his fine clothes, walked the streets as if he owned them because, wealthy and well-educated, he could. The fugueur, in his state of obscured consciousness, was likely to be mistaken, instead, for a vagrant. Albert Dadas, ‘patient zero’ in the mini-epidemic of ‘mad travelling’, was repeatedly arrested for vagabondage. The fugueurs were generally of more modest means than the flâneurs – tradesmen, craftsmen or clerks – and their travels took them much further afield. If someone spoke of a city or a country Albert was seized by the need to go there, and did so, often then finding himself in difficulties due to lack of funds.
One of Charcot’s patients was a young Hungarian Jew named Klein, who was ‘constantly driven by an irresistible need to change his surroundings, to travel, without being able to settle down anywhere’. This particular patient prompted a link with the then prevailing view that Jews were more prone than other races to various forms of neurasthenia and that this particular manifestation was ‘in the character of their race’. Thus the Wandering Jew was, according to Henri Meige’s thesis, ‘only a sort of prototype of neurotic Israelites journeying throughout the world’. Even at the time it was pointed out, fairly acerbically, that if the Jews had a tendency to move from place to place, this was in generally externally rather than internally driven, as persecution and prejudice made it necessary to leave one home in search of another.
Charcot’s diagnosis, and his use of the term ‘hystero-epilepsy’ in particular, fell out of favour, largely due to the failure to identify a common cause that would account for a collection of rather disparate individual cases. In the twentieth century the two types of wanderer seem often to merge, as trauma and exile create a more melancholy and more driven wanderer. One can trace a line from Baudelaire’s flâneur to the Surrealists, via Walter Benjamin’s description of flânerie as a dream state in which ‘The city as a mnemonic for the lonely walker [: it] conjures up more than his childhood and youth, more than its own history’, to Guy Debord’s dérive as subversive practice, and on to today’s psychogeographers. Rather than being a disaffected and detached observer, the flâneur in the late 20th and 21st century may be in flight from memory, from identity, at home nowhere, an exile who feels no connection, or only a highly problematic one, to homeland or origins.
Michel Butor’s 1956 novel, L’Emploi du temps is set in a northern English industrial city, called Bleston but clearly inspired by Manchester, where Butor had worked a few years earlier. It takes the form of a diary kept by his protagonist, Jacques Revel, in the city for a one-year placement. We know nothing of Revel’s life before his arrival in Bleston, or of what he will do after he leaves. He speaks of his year there as a prison sentence – he is unable to leave the city during that period, and compelled to leave it on a specific date. He is certainly not at home in Bleston, but he seems entirely rootless, without any connection elsewhere. In his restless wanderings through the streets, he seems to be searching – mostly fruitlessly – for lodgings, for someone whose name he does not know who he met on an earlier walk, for the elusive countryside. But ultimately his quest is to master the city by walking its streets, grasping the reality which seems to be changing around him as he walks – it is a phantasmagorical city, whose heavily polluted atmosphere creates a narcotic dream-like state, distorting his perceptions and leaving him disorientated.
Butor’s novel had a significant influence on W G Sebald, who came to Manchester about 15 years later. Sebald read L’Emploi du temps when he first arrived, and it inspired a poem, ‘Bleston: A Mancunian Cantical’, as well as having a wider impact on his work.
In Sebald’s novels, the narrator (who may or may not be, to some extent, Sebald) invariably begins by describing a journey. He is precise about when, and where, although the layering of timeframes and locations means that we can lose these certainties as the narrative progresses, but frequently the ‘why’ is obscure, not just to the reader but to the narrator himself. The narrator and the various protagonists are rarely, if ever, ‘at home’. They are often in transit or in provisional, interim spaces such as waiting rooms, railway stations, and transport cafes. Their journeys often induce episodes of near paralysis, physical or mental, and they end inconclusively, often with a sense that the quest will continue after the final page.
But if the Sebaldian narrator is a contemporary example of the melancholy flâneur, Jacques Austerlitz connects us directly with the fugueur, and with wandering as a response to trauma and loss. As a child, Austerlitz arrived in England on the Kindertransport, where his foster parents gave him a new life, and a new name, telling him nothing of his past, or the fate of his parents, until, as a sixth former, he learns that he is not Dafydd Elias.
For many years he avoids any topic or image which might shed light on or raise questions about his origins. But, increasingly isolated, and with his life ‘clouded by unrelieved despair’, tormented by insomnia, he undertakes nocturnal wanderings through London, alone, outwards into the suburbs, and then back at dawn with the commuters into the city. These excursions begin to trigger hallucinations, visions from the past, for example, the impression that ‘the noises of the city were dying down around me and the traffic was flowing silently down the street, or as if someone had plucked me by the sleeve. And I would hear people behind my back speaking in a foreign tongue …’. He is irresistibly drawn to Liverpool Street Station, a place full of ghosts, built as it is on the remains of Bedlam hospital, and, in the disused Ladies’ Waiting Room, encounters the ghosts of his foster parents and the small boy he once was.
Thus his obsessive wanderings appear to have had a sub-conscious purpose, taking him back to the point of rupture between one life and another. He embarks upon a new phase of wandering, driven by the need to find his home and his parents. Overhearing a radio documentary about the Kindertransport, and the reference to a ship named The Prague, like Albert Dadas, the original fugueur: ‘the mere mention of the city’s name in the present context was enough to convince me that I would have to go there’.
Austerlitz’s quest remains incomplete at the end of the novel. In the course of his wanderings he has, he believes, discovered his former home in Prague and traced his mother to Teresienstadt and his father to the Gurs concentration camp in France in 1942. Beyond that he knows only that his mother ‘was sent east’ in 1944. He does not know where, when, or even whether they died.
His quest, and his confrontation with the losses that defined his life, leads to ‘several fainting fits … temporary but complete loss of memory, a condition described in psychiatric textbooks … as hysterical epilepsy’. He is taken, significantly, to the Salpêtrière, where Charcot established this diagnosis almost a century earlier. This diagnosis would only be included in psychiatric textbooks as a historical footnote – an example of Sebald’s dense or layered time – we know precisely where we are, but the ‘when’ is not so straightforward.
Thus we’ve come full circle. And I want to make another tentative, perhaps fanciful connection. Sebald invites us to make all sorts of links with the name Austerlitz – the battle, the Parisian railway station, even Fred Astaire. And there’s always the echo of another name, the likely final destination of both of his parents, unspoken here except in a reference to the Auschowitz Springs near Marienbad. One more then – Ahasuerus, the name often given to the mythological Wandering Jew.
Baudelaire’s description of the flâneur – ‘être hors de chez soi, et pourtant se sentir partout chez soi (away from home and yet at home everywhere)’ has echoed through the twentieth century and into our own, accumulating more and more melancholy baggage. That this phrase has darker undertones than Baudelaire will have intended is brought home by a speech made by Hitler in 1933, in which he described the Jewish people, the ‘small, rootless international clique’, as ‘the people who are at home both nowhere and everywhere’.
In our time then, rather than someone at ease wherever he finds himself, we are likely to think of the refugee and the exile, adapting without putting down roots, unable to return but unable fully to belong, always sub-consciously ready to move on or even keeping a bag permanently packed, just in case. For the original flâneur this characteristic was an affectation, a chosen detachment and rootlessness. For the fugueur, driven by trauma or crisis of identity, it is a curse, to have to wander, and never to find answers, or find home.
Anderson, George K, The Legend of the Wandering Jew (Hanover/London: Brown UP, 1991)
Benjamin, Walter, ed. Michael W Jennings, The Writer of Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire (Cambridge, MA/London: Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 2006)
Brunel, Pierre (ed), translated by Wendy Allatson et al, Companion to Literary Myths, Heroes and Archetypes (NY/London: Routledge, 1996)
Coverley, Merlin, Psychogeography (Harpenden: Pocket Essentials, 2006)
Fink, Steven, ‘Who is Poe’s Man of the Crowd?’, Poe Studies, 44, 2011 (17-38)
Gilloch, Graeme, Myth and Metropolis: Walter Benjamin and the City (Cam.: Polity, 1996)
Goldstein, Jan, ‘The Wandering Jew and the Problem of Psychiatric Anti-Semitism in Fin-de-Siècle France’, Journal of Contemporary History, 20, 4(October 1985), 521-52
Hacking, Ian, ‘Automatisme Ambulatoire: Fugue, Hysteria and Gender at the Turn of the Century’, Modernism/Modernity, 32 (1996), 31-43
__, ‘Les Alienés voyageurs: How Fugue Became a Medical Entity, History of Psychiatry, 7, 3 (September 1996), 425-49
__, Mad Travellers: Reflections on the Reality of Transient Mental Illnesses (Free Association Books, 1998)
Kuo, Michelle and Albert Wu, ‘Imperfect Strollers: Teju Cole, Ben Lerner, W G Sebald and the Alienated Cosmopolitan’, Los Angeles Review of Books, 2 February 2013
Lauster, Martina, ‘Walter Benjamin’s Myth of the Flâneur’, Modern Language Review, 102, 1 (January 2007), 139-56
McDonough, Tom, ‘The Crimes of the Flâneur’, October, 102 (2002), 101-22
Micale, Mark S, In the Mind of Modernism: Medicine, Psychology and the Cultural Arts in Europe and American, 1880-1940 (Stanford UP, 2004)
Seal, Bobby, ‘Baudelaire, Benjamin and the Birth of the Flâneur’, Psychogeographic Review, 14 November 2013
White, Edmund, The Flaneur: A Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris (Bloomsbury, 2008)
On 25/6 September 1940 a man took his own life in a hotel in Portbou, Catalonia. He was 48 years old. He was a writer, an intellectual, whose work, cut terribly short as it was, is still hugely influential. He was Jewish, and had crossed the border from France, having escaped Paris ahead of the German army. He’d just heard that all transit visas had been cancelled, and that he and his fellow-travellers would be forced to return to France.
The UNHCR’s campaign for World Refugee Day focused on the ‘choice’ faced by refugees – to stay or to go, either one fraught with danger. Walter Benjamin – and many others – took a third option. He had contemplated suicide before, seeing Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. He’d recently been interned in France as a stateless person, and knew already that the Gestapo had instructions to arrest him.
His choice is made bitter by our knowledge that his travelling companion, Arthur Koestler, took morphine tablets too, but survived and escaped, and that the embargo on visas was lifted a few weeks later. As Hannah Arendt says in her introduction to Illuminations, ‘only on that particular day was the catastrophe possible’ (p. 18).
It’s also bitter because, if the scope of his influence on the humanities is so great on the basis of the work he published in his short lifetime, it could have been so much more had he lived. In the words of his friend Gershom Scholem, his ‘genius united the insight of the Metaphysician, the interpretative power of the Critic, and the erudition of the Scholar’. (Reflections, vii). Anyone interested in the city, in maps and labyrinths, in Baudelaire, Kafka or Proust, in text and translation, history and memory, will encounter Benjamin.
Walter Benjamin stands, in this context, for our loss, the loss of those who didn’t escape, and particularly those – notable and anonymous – who chose this third way. On the memorial to Benjamin in Portbou these words are inscribed: IT IS MORE ARDUOUS TO HONOUR THE MEMORY OF THE NAMELESS THAN THAT OF THE RENOWNED. HISTORICAL CONSTRUCTION IS DEVOTED TO THE MEMORY OF THE NAMELESS.
Walter Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, preface by Leon Wieseltier, Introduction by Hannah Arendt (NY: Schocken Books, 2007)
— Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, preface by Leon Wieseltier, Introduction by Peter Demetz (NY: Schocken Books, 2007)
What we don’t know is more interesting than what we know, both in the sciences and in the arts. The classic detective story is a puzzle which must, to satisfy its readers, provide a solution, tie up loose ends, arrange retribution, and restore the natural order of things (typified in many of the TV detective series I recall from the 1970s by the postscript where they all go home and have tea, and a bit of a laugh, no matter how traumatic the preceding events have been). The satisfaction of the tidy ending can simultaneously be a disappointment. The final ‘reveal’, the scene where someone (the brilliant detective’s slightly dozy sidekick, perhaps) says, ‘But what I still don’t understand is…’, allowing the brilliant detective to resolve that last apparent anomaly, leaves the reader or viewer little to ponder on once the book is closed or the credits have rolled.
To be fair, the best examples of the genre, whilst making use of its conventions and tropes, also stretch and subvert them. The detective novels that have remained in print for decades are those which have more to satisfy the reader than merely the solving of a riddle. We might re-read or re-watch a lesser work once, just to spot where the clues were if we’d been bright enough to pick them up, or even in the hope of finding a continuity error or plot hole, but we’re not likely to revisit them repeatedly. In my many re-readings of, for example, Dorothy L Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novels, in contrast, it’s not the plot, but the characters, the quality of the writing that give repeated pleasure.
If the classic mystery, the ‘roman enigme’, is a puzzle to be solved, and, like a completed crossword, of limited interest thereafter, the ‘roman noir’, is a more complex and nuanced narrative. Tellingly, it flourished in the ’40s and ’50s in France, often taking the Occupation as subject and setting (Atack, 2010), providing a medium in which the ambiguities of the era could be explored, but has also been used more recently by such writers as Didier Daeninckx, to stage ‘complex crimes that to be solved involve precisely a return to the past, to the hidden history of State and/or establishment criminality’ (Gorrara, 79) (see Daeninckx’s Meurtres pour Memoires, which uncovers two dark and hidden areas of France’s past, the massacre of Algerian demonstrators in Paris in 1961, and the wartime deportation of Jews, events linked by one man, Maurice Papon).
The roman noir takes the reader well off the tourist map, into a city of shadows and secrets, into the realm of the uncanny. In this labyrinth, the detective wanders the streets, as shadowy and ambiguous a figure as those he tracks – indeed, as Butor said, the flaneur-detective and the criminal ‘are at bottom identical. The second places his steps in the footprints of the first who remains unaware of him, although the former is without knowing it the initiator, the guide of the second’ (Histoire extraordinaire, p. 33). Walter Benjamin drew on Baudelaire‘s fascination with Poe’s ur-detective story, ‘The Man of the Crowd’, to link the flaneur and the detective when he wrote that ‘No matter what trail the flaneur may follow, every one of them will lead him to a crime’. This is highly ambiguous – is the flaneur a detective, tracking down transgressions and transgressors, or a criminal, whose wanderings are themselves transgressive and/or may lead him into crime/to commit crime? (McDonough, 101).
Michel Butor’s Passing Time isn’t a detective novel, though one critic described it as of the fusion of this genre and the experimental novel. But his Bleston is the perfect setting for a ‘roman noir’, a place of shadows and labyrinthine streets, a place where fear and suspicion are in the air. Butor was ‘devouring’ detective novels at this time, and right at the heart of Passing Time, he places an exposition on the principles upon which they are constructed. Crime novelist George Burton (alias J K Hamilton) argues that every detective novel is based around two murders, the crime itself, and the (symbolic or actual) destruction of the criminal by the detective when they are exposed, killed by ‘the explosion of truth (143-4). The detective’s role is to ‘disturb and probe, to expose and alter things’, to tear off veils and masks, abolish errors, ignorance and lies, to cleanse ‘this small fraction of the world’ from its offence and the defilement that the murder brings with it. According to Burton, he is:
‘the true son of the murderer Oedipus, not only because he solves a riddle, but also because he kills the man to whom he owes his title, without whom he would not exist in that capacity (without crimes, without mysterious crimes, what would he be?) because this murder was foretold for him from the day of his birth or, if you prefer, because it is inherent in his nature, through it alone he fulfils himself and attains the highest power’ (145)
The detective novel superimposes two temporal sequences, that which begins with the discovery of the crime and concludes with the discovery of its perpetrator, and that which leads up to the crime, which is reconstructed by the detective (not necessarily emerging in a linear form, but usually presented to us as such at the climax of the novel). Similarly, Passing Time has a linear time frame beginning in May when Revel starts writing his journal, and ending in September with his departure from Bleston, but his journal narrative begins in October with his arrival, initially linear but gradually becoming ‘a desperate attempt to account for several months simultaneously, ending as the narrator leaves the town with the awareness that no year can ever be completely recovered, as the lack of time to describe the events of February 29 so symbolizes’ (Lloyd, 2005, pp 143-4).
Just as there are (at least) two time frames, there are (at least) two texts, that which gives the true version of events, which the guilty party has erased, or tried to erase, and the alternative version of events which has been superimposed upon it. The detective’s goal is to uncover the true story from the traces left behind, to decipher and restore the palimpsest.
The detective novel itself, a green Penguin crime title, with a blank space where the author photograph normally appears, is the trigger for most of the events in the narrative. (I should say, the books themselves, since Revel buys two copies, and Ann a third.) Revel is attracted by the ambiguity of the title – Le Meurtre de Bleston could refer at the same time to a murder committed in Bleston, and to the murder of Bleston, thus allowing him ‘to enjoy a small private revenge against this town’ (54). But it becomes ‘an auxiliary so precious that I can almost say that a new phase of my adventure began at the instant when … I read for the first time those opening words which I now know by heart’ (55). The precision with which the author describes the city and its monuments suggests to him that the story might be based on real events, leading him to attempt his own detective work when the book’s author is injured in an ‘accident’. More than that, Revel feels that he’s being led along:
‘through a newspaper poster I had discovered J C Hamilton’s detective story, The Bleston Murder; through reading this I had discovered the Murderer’s Window, which in its turn had given rise to this conversation with its closing words of advice to visit the New Cathedral. It was as though a trail had been laid for me, at each stage of which I was allowed to see the end of the next stage, a trail which was to lead me hopelessly astray’ (80).
The book(s) wander(s) through Bleston just as their owner does. Linking all of Revel’s contacts in Bleston (his landlady, the two sisters with whom he consecutively falls in love, his colleague Jenkins, his compatriot Lucien) with the single exception of Horace Buck, the African worker who befriends him, and linking via the sisters to their friends and thus to the suspected real life counterpart of the book’s perpetrator, it is passed on, lost, replaced (in a second-hand version with an indecipherable signature), and reappears in a bewildering sequence.
The re-reading of detective novels is expounded upon here too. Revel justifies his re-reading of The Bleston Murder on the basis that it is ‘a precious guide for a newcomer among the perplexities and misunderstandings of that city’ , but for Jenkins, an aficionado of the genre, ‘they take on a kind of transparency. As you trace out the illusions of the beginning, you glimpse the truth that you remember more or less clearly’ (88).
Revel becomes a detective, to unravel his own past and reconstruct it. But his quest is doomed to failure, there is no final revelation. For the writers of noir, and the nouveau romanciers, the Borgesian imminent revelation often remains imminent, unrealised, or reveals a new mystery. If the narrator/hero finds a path through the labyrinth, ‘it is only to discover that the exit is really an entrance, that the labyrinth solved is no more than a labyrinth within a greater labyrinth’ (Porter, 256). And so nothing here is finally resolved. Revel’s feud with the city ends with an uneasy truce (‘We are quits’ (249)), the ‘accident’ that fuels his guilt and his suspicions appears ultimately to be just an accident, the only murderers he encounters are fictional or mythical. There is no return to the harmony of an established order. But the process of interpreting the palimpsest, reconstructing the past, following the trail and making the links does start something, not contained within the arbitrary parameters of the narrative:
‘Thus each day, evoking other days like harmonics, transforms the appearance of the past, and while certain periods come into the light others, formerly illuminated, tend to grow dim, and to lie silent and unknown until with the passage of time fresh echoes come to awaken them. Thus the sequence of former days is only restored to us through a whole host of other days, constantly changing, and every event calls up an echo from other, earlier events which caused it or explain it or correspond to it, every monument, every object, every image sending us back to other periods which we must reawaken in order to recover the lost secret of their power for good or evil’ (283)
Margaret Atack, ‘Representing the Occupation in the Novel of the 1950s: Ne jugez pas’, Cincinnati Romance Review, 29 (2010), 76-88
Michel Butor, Passing Time, translated by Jean Stewart (London: John Calder, 1961)
– Histoire Extraordinaire: Essays on a Dream of Baudelaire’s, translated by R Howard (Jonathan Cape, 1969)
Didier Daeninckx, Meurtres pour Memoires (Paris: Gallimard, 1984)
Claire Gorrara, The Roman Noir in Post-War French Culture: Dark Fictions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003)
Louise Hardwick (ed), New Approaches to Crime in French Literature, Culture and Film (Bern: Peter Lang, 2009)
Rosemary Lloyd, Shimmering in a Transformed Light: Writing the Still Life (Cornell UP, 2005)
Tom McDonough, ‘The Crimes of the Flâneur’, October, 102 (2002), 101-22
Edgar Allan Poe, ‘The Man of the Crowd’, Selected Tales (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)
Dennis Porter, The Pursuit of Crime: Art and Ideology in Detective Fiction (New Haven; London: Yale UP, 1981)